Before you start writing your novel, it is my firm opinion that you need to have at least a general idea of what the story is (plot), who’s in it (characters), and the world in which it takes place (world-building). In the previous article, we discussed designing your novel’s premise. Once that step is completed, there are three core activities that need some attention before you can start actually writing the book. I call this phase of writing “prepping” the novel. These three preliminary activities include: plotting, getting to know your characters, and researching, which provides the foundations on which to build your story world. In this article, I will speak about all three of these processes together, because they are all interdependent.
What makes plotting so complex is that a plot is not a static thing; it is the unfolding story of a change in process, incrementally expressed through a characters’ choices and actions. A metaphor that I use to help me remember this key idea is that of the classic children’s game called “Mousetrap.” You’ve probably seen this game or played it as a kid. This game fascinated me for hours when I was little. You drop a silver ball into one end of the “mousetrap” and it rolls off through all sorts of chutes and travels up little pulleys and goes down spirals and rolls across bridges, etc. One segment of the game rolls into another. I think of plot as being like that—one fun bit leads swiftly into another.
A three-act plot has a beginning section, a middle section, and an end section. Each of these sections has its own beginning, middle, and climactic end—its own unfolding flow of one event leading into another. Like the mousetrap, the plot is all cause and effect. The best plots give us here and there unforeseen and surprising (but still logical and believable) effects for any given cause. Readers love it when you give them something that they never saw coming.
You certainly don’t need to know every little event that happens in your story when you sit down to write page one—for me, I don’t know a lot of things in my story until I actually get there to that particular scene—but it is definitely helpful to know in advance what the three main sections of your plot, your mousetrap, looks like—what the main challenge is in each section, what twists might you be able to throw in, and what the high points are and key turning points (turning points are events which cause the story situation to undergo a drastic change).
Remember, if gravity is the thing that compels the silver ball to keep moving through the mousetrap, it is conflict that keeps the ball rolling in a plot. In a romance, that means conflict BETWEEN the hero and heroine—genuine, sensible conflict, either loud and sassy or quiet and subtle, between two mutually attracted people, and/or a clash of the goals that drive them. If you find your plot petering out, one of the most common reasons for this is that the hero and heroine have no conflict between them at that particular point in the story. Sometimes you have to dig for it, if it’s under the surface, and find ways to bring it out.
I said above that the three phases of prepping the story are inter-related. Plot is entwined with character because some characters simply would not choose certain actions, so the plot is restricted what that particular individual would or wouldn’t do. Plot is also shaped by character in another sense. Genre fiction calls not just for protagonists, but for Heroes and Heroines—characters who are by their very nature, a little better in some way than average. So, you couldn’t have a Hero refusing to rush into a burning building, for example, to save a little kid when there’s no one else around to help. He might be scared to death to do it, and not want to do it at all, but he must do it, or he is immediately disqualified as a Hero. If nothing else, heroes are brave and selfless when it counts. You couldn’t have a Heroine leave a homeless person dying on her doorstep on a freezing winter night and do nothing to help or she wouldn’t be heroic. A mainstream fiction type protagonist might let the kid burn or the homeless person freeze, but a heroic character simply can’t.
Note that heroes and heroines don’t have to be better-than-average in every way; in some ways, they may be worse than average. Take for example the classical mythic hero, Achilles, who was the world’s best warrior, but also had a hellish temper, or Odysseus, who was highly clever and keenly intelligent, but also sneaky and arrogant enough to think he could dupe everybody with his superior wits, and as a result, insulted the gods and had to pay the price. Scarlett O’Hara is a heroine because she’s extremely tough, bold, and brave, but, boy, is she manipulative and selfish. Conversely, Melanie Wilkes can be seen to be a heroine, too, because she is all that is good and kind, but, unlike Scarlett, she’s also timid and wilting. Each writer has to decide for herself what traits are essential for someone to qualify as a hero. The point I’m trying to make is simply that character is one of two shaping factors of plot. The other is research.
No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, you have to build on the page the world in which it takes place, and that means knowing the facts about that world. This holds true whether it’s Regency England, ancient Rome, a modern-day Arizona cattle ranch, a gritty urban police precinct, Hogwort’s School of Magic, or an alien planet in a futuristic space odyssey. Whatever it might be, you have to know how the place really works and limit your plot within what is/was reasonably possible. Even if you choose to use a bit of poetic license and fudge the facts with what was possible, do so on purpose, not out of ignorance of the facts. Then even the experts out there who know the facts as well as you do will be fooled. Learn your story world inside and out so that you can lie convincingly. *g*
It is wise to plot and develop character at the same time that you’re researching because you can look everything up as you go, and see if the story that you wish to unfold will work logistically, given whatever reality you are working in. Getting the research largely done ahead of time also helps to keep the flow of creativity going while you’re knee-deep in writing the first draft. You don’t want to get side-tracked and lose the flow of the story once you start the actual writing, because when that happens, it’s very hard to get back into it again. So, remain flexible when you’re painting the broad strokes of your story, because the personalities of the characters and the facts of your story-world will block off certain plot options that you may have been counting on as the story unfolds.
Many writers like to jot down their ideas for plot scenes on note cards. These are a good, no-fuss tool because you can experiment easily with changing the order of scenes or taking them out altogether simply by changing the note cards around or eliminating them.
Note also that you don’t have to start with plot when prepping your novel! I just begin with plot here for the sake of analysis. You can just as easily start with character development or research—whatever works best for you. Be aware, however, that for many people, starting with research can be risky because there’s a danger of letting research drag on interminably, which is usually just a way of avoiding the actual writing, due to fear.
GETTING TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS
There are many, many exercises out there that authors of writing books have put forth to help us get to know our characters.
By far, my favorite is the year-by-year character biography. No, it’s not much fun to create, frankly, but for me, it’s very useful as I write my book. I find that it fleshes out my characters as full beings so that they seem like real people to me. The idea is that you start with the year your lead character(s) were born, and then start working forward in detail about the significant events of each part of their lives. It usually takes me a few days to fill this out for my three main people—hero, heroine, and villain. (I’ll do abbreviated versions for important secondary characters.)
To give you an idea of the level of detail that you can go into with this, I actually start with what kind of birth they had. Easy or hard birth, what kind of medical care they had present, for example, scary Regency doctor with metal forceps, or hefty, unflappable midwife, etc. (This isn’t as off-the-wall as it sounds: traditional Heroes of legend usually have something unusual or mysterious about their birth.) Other aspects you might consider: who cared for them as an infant, the place where they were born, what time of year were they born, what significant current events were going on in the world at the time, what were the expectations put on this child from birth (heir to the dukedom or bad seed, for example—or both?!). Then I consider early childhood. Caretakers, setting, what kind of baby/toddler was this person.
Childhood. What is the family’s economic reality and social class? What is the family’s standing in their particular community? Who are the child’s main educators? What are the most significant events of this period of life? How are the child’s relationships with parents, siblings, servants or other caretakers? Who were the main educators? Main playmates? Pets? (This is significant to little kids!) Any serious illnesses or childhood injuries? Main emotional lesson to come out of this part of life? Historical events during these years that had an impact on the family?
Puberty. Now we introduce an awareness of the opposite sex for the first time. Basic opinions about the opposite sex formed in this period. Alos, new skills as his/her education unfolds. Best and worst subject? What kind of education is this kid receiving? What interests or hobbies is he/she into? What do they like? What kind of responsibilities are expected of them? Is this kid an apprentice doing hard labor or the heir to the title who is waited on hand and foot? Any new interests/hobbies/personality traits emerging? Again, relationship with other family members. Who are the main friends and caretakers now? In what direction are the parents wanting this kid’s life go, if any? How does he/she feel about them? How does this youngster feel about him/herself at this point? What kind of kid is he or she? What principles are beginning to guide this young person’s unfoldment as a human being? For example, a young boy who is wrapped up in King Arthur tales might have a strong commitment to chivalry as a grown man. If you’re going to put a traumatic event in your character’s past, puberty or early adolescence is a good place to have it happen for developmental reasons. Also, be mindful of significant historical events and how they could impact this and the next phase of life, as the youngster approaches adulthood.
Adolescence. Teens and early 20's. Marital and career prospects. This is a period of life that is about chasing one’s dreams. What mistakes did this person make along the way? Who were his/her main companions? What’s their outlook on life? Do they like or dislike themselves, generally? How are those family relationships holding up? How have they changed? What is this person’s ideal vision of life at this point? How close or far away are they from attaining it? What are they angry about? Whom do they love? What are they willing to fight for? What is their sexual history up to this point? If they are not in a position to make plans for themselves, who is shaping their future, and how do they feel about it? If they are independent, what are they involved in? How are the real events of history impacting their young adulthood?
Adulthood. Mid-20's and 30's. Does this person have a mission in life? Who are they involved with? Who is closest to them?
You get the picture. And I’m sure you can also see how research plays a key role here. Through research, you can gain an understanding of what kind of lives real people had in that period of history and how far you might be able to stretch that in a believable way for fictional purposes. Various plot twists for what may have happened to the character along the way in life will be a lot more believable if you have a historical precedent on which to model your character’s experiences.
Another great exercise that saves lots of research headaches later is designing the character’s typical wardrobe and home. Since both of these facets require a bit of research, I find it best to get them out of the way before I begin writing text; that way, the character is more fleshed out for me and seems more rounded and complete before I even begin the story, and it saves me from having to interrupt myself later while I’m writing the first draft.
I hope by now you have begun to see how plot, character, and research are all interwoven facets of prepping your novel. If you want a certain plot event to happen in the course of the story, you can work backwards and lay the groundwork for why and how it would happen, based on the character’s life story. Conversely, you can hint at a character’s internal reality by how they dress and the sort of house they live in. And by doing your preliminary research beforehand, you can be secure in knowing that you’ve based it all on stuff that really could have happened at that period in history.
Again, you don’t have to know everything about your story, your characters, or your period before you begin writing. But by covering these bases ahead of time, you can save yourself from the all-too-common occurrence of having a plot that peters out midway through the first draft, characters who seem to be carrying out actions seemingly without any strong, definite internal motivation, or worst of all, a finished manuscript which, after months of work, proves to be entirely based on a historical impossibility, and is therefore unsaleable.
Press on, my friends! Give yourself plenty of time to prep your book, and good luck. Until next time, when we will explore the joys and tribulations of sitting down to write the first draft. . . .